Saturday, November 6, 2010

Continuing my education

I took a graduate level management course at Stanford a while back, and I have to say it did make quite an impact on me. The course's name is Decision Analysis, and as the name implies, it focuses on how to make decisions better. It is extraordinary that we don't actually spend much time figuring out how to make decisions big or small: we do not gather all the facts, we do not look for the appropriate facts, we do not interpret the facts correctly, we do not want to listen to facts....Why? Sometimes it is because we are lazy, but most times, it is because we want to do what we want to do.

Stanford's claim of fame in this area is their program in creating successful entrepreneurs. How on earth do you do that? How do you train a bunch of kids so they can actually compete with giant corporations steep in money and experience?... You make them think critically. Hmm...

So back to this course. It is taught in the Socratic method, which means the professor pretty much answers a question by asking a question back at ya. However effective this method is, and I admit it is, you'll invariably find the teacher a pompous ass. Anyhow, in the middle of this course, he did an experiment on us students. It was basically to see how we (Stanford's brilliant students) fared when we had to: 1. reason, 2. vote.

We were presented with a tricky question, tricky because the answer appears obvious based on what we know: there is 50-50 chance of getting head/tail when tossing a coin, we all learned that in high school yeah? Even though just slightly deeper thought would immediately suggests that in this particular problem, the answer is not so simple. The students had to vote several times, and between each vote, both sides (true/false answers) were made to defend their reasoning. So basically, we all had a chance to the hear the correct answer being deduced from our fellow classmates, and each time the wrong answer was defended based on an impression we got from something we learned in high school. The arguments happened over and over again, and we voted repeatedly. The result? 85% got the wrong answer in the beginning, and after several more reasoning/vote repetition, 80% STILL stuck with the wrong answer. WOW.

Was my class particularly stupid? At the end of the experiment, the professor told us he repeated this same exercise twice each year for upwards of 20 years, and the results are always the same. He tried it on a bunch of famous CEOs as well, and he got the same result. He said, many times over the years, there were occasions when the correct answer was reasoned so convincingly that he thought for sure the jig is up, but it never does; however smart and successful his audience, they tend to vote wrong because people want to believe something they are comfortable with.

Then he made the most provocative statement of all:

"Only when I, the professor, an authority figure says something is right, did the audience take as the correct answer. Most students do not believe his/her classmate, no matter how convincing his/her argument and logic is."

That is some serious flaw in the system man! And then he said his most controversial statement:

"I should teach this to primary school children."

I suppose he means children can better learn this lesson? That they would grasp the significance and adopt critical reasoning more readily? Or perhaps it would spare them decades of worthless conditioning? That it would do the most good to the world and human progress? He didn't say. I heard this is his punch line, something he proudly states each year: he should be teaching this to young kids instead. And I remembered the murmurs in my class, it offended the Stanford students to suggest they just spend some serious money to given a lesson that ought to be learned by seven year olds.

Now, from what I can gather, this professor did not attempt to teach young kids his great wisdom. I suppose Stanford faculty is more appealing. But a few months ago, I met someone who is. Her name is Zoe Weil.

I met Zoe in an animal rights conference. I need to seriously sit down and blog about that experience one day. At first sight, she seemed to me a small frail looking lady, but she had this Jane Goddall-esque aura about her. She is the co-founder of the Institute for Humane Education, and it is an organization that focuses on providing education on today's major social issues to children by teaching them how to think. I listened to her lecture and you know what? she is saying the same thing as that Stanford prof, except she is the bigger person in my mind because she is actually doing the most good by working with children. I took a course from this organization since then, and I loved every minute of it. I paid $80 for this course with the Humane Ed, and I assure you that is way less than what I had to pay for Stanford.


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